April 22, 2011

Communicate or Inform?

Recently I attended a management offsite meeting where I was asked to facilitate a segment on professional development. I set out to find a relevant topic. In looking through our catalog of offerings, I noticed that much of the content focused on either leadership or coaching. Very little of it targeted managing itself. So I decided to find something on managing. I found a small workshop that focused on becoming an effective manager based on the findings of French businessman, Henry Fayol. He was one of the first to develop a general theory of management. His theories, still in use today, focus on six functions of management. This workshop covered five of them (Planning, Organizing, Commanding, Coordinating, and Controlling (Monitoring). I want to drill into a key point within one.

The third function, Commanding, is a critical function. It is where the rubber meets the road. This is where things happen. It is all about communicating the plan to the right team at the right time for them to do the activities that deliver the goals and results of the business. The first interesting element of this function is the title, Commanding. In the 21st century business, this term usually takes on a negative connotation. When Fayol established it, it had a much broader and less offensive tone. He likened this step to a ship’s commander and their role. To allow for easier assimilation in today’s business environment, many people now refer to this function as Communicating. It’s this new term that I want to focus today.

In our conversation around this function, we uncovered two words that get used interchangeably, Communicating and Informing. We concluded that while similar, the words actually mean different things and are more complimentary than alike. As managers we need to be aware of the difference when working with our teams.

To inform is to simply pass on facts or information. It is a one way conversation. A monologue, if you will. To communicate, on the other hand, is a much more complex endeavor. It means being able to share and understand each other’s thoughts. It is a dialogue between two or more people until there is a joint understanding.

For example, your boss sends you an email with some key performance statistics, and an attached PowerPoint slide. You briefly review it and forward the email to your team. Later, your boss asks you if your team is on board with the new structure detailed in the PowerPoint slide. You tell him: “Yes, I communicated the information to my team.”

But did you?

In this scenario, after reviewing the differences between communicating and informing, you will realize that you merely informed them. You did not meet with them individually, or as a group, so you do not know if they understand the changes and are “on board with them” or if they even looked at the email. To have truly communicated with them, you should have scheduled a meeting, or conference call, talked about the information, asked if they had questions and had them share their thoughts with you.

As you can see, it’s easy to confuse the two. In our fast paced business environments, just informing teams happens more often then we realize. So, take time to know whether you need to communicate or simply inform. There is a place for each. Learn when to use the right one.

Let me know if you understand!

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